Volunteer project surveys Bay Area coast, sea life to predict impacts of climate change

ByDan Ashley and Tim Didion KGO logo
Wednesday, July 12, 2023
Volunteer project predicts impacts of climate change on Bay Area coast
A volunteer project, dubbed "Snapshot Cal Coast," builds a living database of changes along the Bay Area coast to study climate change.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- As they sift through the sands along the Moss Beach shoreline, you could say this team from the California Academy of Sciences is literally taking a snapshot of climate change. Or at least, it's effect on marine visitors.

"This is a Turkish towel. It's a type of seaweed," said Community Science Coordinator Olivia VanDamme, holding up a specimen plucked from the surf.

Using cell phone cameras, the team is documenting the varied life forms that dot the coastline collecting photographs and data that are adding to a much bigger picture.

MORE: Here's how trust team is working together to restore Presidio Forest in SF

"And the cool thing is, since we've been doing this for eight years, we can compare this year to all the years that have gone by. And we can take all of those data and get, not only pictures of how the biodiversity has changed since we started but also look at models of how we think how we all predict and scientists predict the climate and coastal conditions might change," says Dr. Rebecca Johnson co-director of the Academy's Center for Biodiversity.

She says the beach survey is part of a massive volunteer project, dubbed "Snapshot Cal Coast." Launched nearly a decade ago, its goal is to build a kind of living database of changes along the coast. A mission that's especially intriguing this year, with the predicted return of El Nino.

"And during El Ninos or right after El Ninos, we tend to get warmer water species from Southern California, moving north into Northern California. And so we can pick up we might be able to see species that are moving north," Johnson said.

MORE: How NASA is using satellites to track glacier melt, predict sea level rise

With its increasing ability to measure both glacier melt and sea level rise, NASA is hoping to more accurately predict what the future may hold.

And figuring out what's on the move is turning into a full-time job. For the first time in recent memory, researchers have documented juvenile great white sharks migrating from warm water nursery habitats in Southern California to waters near Monterey Bay. This while another predator species, Sunflower Sea Stars, nearly vanished in another ocean warming episode. Their loss triggered a population explosion in competing purple sea urchins, which are now devouring coastal Kelp forests. Predicting what's coming next may require clues, big and small.

"So these are By-the-Wind-Sailors this is kind of a dried-up piece of it. But they've been washing up on California shores in the past couple of months," says Biodiversity Data Specialist Dr. Natalie Low, holding the small, squishy-looking organism.

Low says an earlier wave of the floating ocean creatures drifted in before the last El Nino as well -- exactly the kind of data the Snapshot program is designed to track.

MORE: NASA takes research to the sky and sea to track impacts of climate change. Here's how

"We can use them in models to figure out how animals change with different environmental conditions and over time, and kind of project that onto the future to see. You know, to predict what might happen to them with climate change," Low said.

It's the type of big picture that becomes richer over the decade as new bits of information bring it into sharper focus. And perhaps providing a clearer vision for longterm decision-making and also managing the challenges already facing our coastline.

"Helping to think about what needs to be done to help bring these ecosystems back into balance. But also thinking about what balance will look like in 100 years, not what's better, what's perfect now," Johnson said.

The Snapshot Cal Coast survey uses a digital platform called iNaturalist. It's something like a clearing house that allows experts and citizen scientists to upload photos and data to help track the earth's species.

Now Streaming 24/7 Click Here

If you're on the ABC7 News app, click here to watch live